Palm Beach County convention center turns profit thanks to hotel

The once-fledgling Palm Beach County Convention Center has turned an annual profit for the first time in its 14-year history, a shift that tourism officials say is a result of the West Palm Beach Hilton opening next door.

The county-owned convention center, which has operated at a loss since it opened in 2003, reported net profit of $118,404 for the fiscal year that ended in September, officials said Thursday. The 12-month period marked the first full year that the 400-room Hilton was open next to the convention center.

“The transformation has been crystal clear,” said Dave Anderson, regional vice president of Spectra Venue Management, the company hired by the county to manage the convention center. “There is no doubt that (the hotel) was a good investment.”

Tourism leaders spent more than a decade pushing for a hotel to complement the convention center on Okeechobee Boulevard in downtown West Palm Beach, arguing that without adjacent lodging the building never would be profitable.

Palm Beach County commissioners chose Related Cos. as the developer in 2010. Two years later, the commission agreed to cover $27 million of the estimated $110 million hotel construction cost. Construction beganin 2014.

In the years before the hotel opened in January 2016, about 85 percent of the convention center’s business consisted of short-term events, many of which were booked just a few months out and attracted attendees who drove to the building for a single day. Those attendees didn’t typically stay at area hotels, shop at local stores, visit tourist attractions or eat at restaurants.

In the 19 months since the hotel opened, Anderson said the convention center has seen a surge in the number of longer-term bookings, including trade associations, conventions and other meetings. Those events are booked years in advance and typically draw visitors from throughout the world to Palm Beach County for multiple-day trips.

About 57 percent of the convention center business now consists of longer-term events, Anderson told members of the county’s Tourist Development Council on Thursday. The center’s sales team is now booking meetings and conventions set to be held in 2021 and 2022, officials said.

Anderson said he hopes the convention center’s growth will also be a boon for businesses across the county. Many convention and meeting planners look for nearby venues to host pre- and post-events, he added.

“We want to push the impact of these events into the community,” Anderson told the tourism board.

Tourism leaders are also working with restaurants in downtown West Palm Beach to provide deals and other packages for large groups.

With the addition of a new 2,500-car parking garage, the convention center can now use its surface parking lot to hold outdoor events and shows, Anderson said.

Before the Hilton’s opening, the convention center was limited to competing for events that would generate a maximum of about 450 nightly hotel bookings, officials have said.

But when Hilton’s 400 rooms are combined with those at other nearby hotels, including the West Palm Beach Marriott, the Hyatt Place and the Residence Inn in downtown West Palm Beach, the convention center’s sales team can vie for much larger events.

This past month, construction crews broke ground on a 150-room Canopy by Hilton set to rise along Dixie Highway, just a few blocks from the convention center. Tourism leaders say the hotel has already agreed to set aside a block of rooms for a large group planning to travel here in 2019.

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